In Conversation: Slow Cinema
Henry: We both watched Satantango last week and I came down in the pretty standard camp of thinking it’s a masterpiece but I believe that was pretty far from your takeaway. What was it that didn’t work for you? And how does it feel to spend more than seven hours watching something that’s very slow and just okay?
Kern:Well, I was actually beyond excited to finally see it. I’d avoided watching it in poor quality for over a decade, despite really wanting to see it, and as soon as the 4K got announced, I knew I made the right choice in waiting. Actually seeing it, even if not in a theater like I wanted, only confirmed that even more, because it’s one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen. The 4K transfer is unbelievable. So just from a visual perspective, I’d be happy watching those images for another 7 hours. I was somewhat prepared for it to not live up to the legacy/my expectations because I watched Werckmeister Harmonies last year and had a pretty similar reaction: the images are intoxicating, but it’s way more narrative driven than I’d expected and the two don’t really cohere for me. Satantango even more so, because it bounces back and forth between long 10 minute silent shots and lengthy exposition-laden monologues. I absolutely adore the gruelingly slow moments, like that perfect opening shot with the cows, but the plot—though interesting on its own, if not necessarily emotionally engaging—doesn’t really benefit from those sequences, and vice versa. Obviously you don’t share my same criticisms about it feeling uneven, so what is it you love about Satantango, and how does it compare to the other films you’ve seen from Béla Tarr?
Henry: I agree that it’s a visually beautiful film but I think the long slow sequences only serve to underscore the importance of the monologues and the scenes where more is happening. I suppose you could call the switches between the two modes uneven but I think it’s more of something that’s meant to be jarring for effect. A seven hour film operates entirely differently from one that’s only two hours but it feels much closer to life. We spend most of our lives doing nothing, just sleeping or walking or driving or scrolling through twitter, but not doing anything meaningful. I wouldn’t call all of that time useless though because, like in the film, it makes the moments where we do something meaningful all the more important and it gives time to decompress and let the world sink in. In the film, the actual plot would make for a solid enough film on its own and I would sit through all of the slow moments too but neither has much meaning until they are shown together and make the world of the film feel like the one we live in and the characters seem like people we might encounter. Further, the bleakness of the film’s plot finds reinforcement in the bleakness of the world we spend six hours observing without interruption. We just ran an essay about the same concept in Ghibli films but I find it to be much more effective here because of how drawn out it is all allowed to become and how mundane the story is in comparison to many other films. It’s something that we see some of in The Turin Horse as well but to me The Turin Horse seems a condensed version meant to be more easily digestible but it undermines a lot of what allowed Satantango to become entrancing.
Kern: I definitely agree with the point about the film being thoroughly bleak. Even at 90 minutes, it wouldn’t be a brisk watch by any means. The jarring juxtaposition of scenes where nothing happens with scenes where the plot is propelling forward wouldn’t bother me as much if it wasn’t often just an unfurling of exposition. It’s like the film is trying to make up for lost time at points. I suppose it helps put the audience in the perspective of the characters, but I also think it (intentionally) puts a distance between the audience and the characters so there isn’t necessarily an emotional connection to anyone in the film; it’s more that we’re just along for the grueling ride with them, though we have the benefit of knowing more about their situation than they do. I definitely don’t want it to come across as if I think the film has nothing to offer apart from its visuals, because I think the characters are well developed and distinguished (despite my lack of emotional connection to them), and I really loved the structure of the film which bounces back and forth in time so that we approach each scene with a completely different angle and have access to information that the characters don’t. I also think the story in general is fantastic; I’m always intrigued by parables, even when they don’t totally work for me. To your last point, I totally agree that The Turin Horse is like a condensed (or I’d say stripped down) version of Satantango, at least in terms of the atmospheric bleakness. That’s probably why it’s my favorite of the three films I’ve seen from Tarr; it feels like the one that’s most concerned with embedding the audience in this monotonous, nihilistic atmosphere at the expense of most of the plot. No surprise that my least favorite part is the lengthy dialogue scene near the middle. I would even argue that The Turin Horse qualifies more as “slow cinema” than Satantango.
Henry: You bring up an interesting point here about slow cinema. I think most anyone who watched five minutes of Satantango, even if they just watched a dialogue scene, would instantly say it’s slow cinema and certainly if they spent the full runtime being immersed in that world, slow would be one of the first words to come to mind. But at the same time, when you first mentioned this topic and questioned whether Satantango even qualified as slow cinema, I could see where you were coming from. I see it as standing apart from essentially all other film for a variety of reasons and that leads to where I could draw that distinction (though I would still absolutely call it slow cinema) but I’d like to know why it is that you feel that way.
Kern: I mean there are certainly long stretches where it would qualify as slow cinema, but to me it comes down to the narrative, and I think it’s just too dense narratively to really fit that description. That’s not to say it’s a super accessible movie, but I think The Turin Horse’s narrative is intrinsically about the mundanity of the characters’ lives, whereas Satantango has so much more happening and follows a bunch of specific characters through their respective journeys, with their paths interweaving, etc. The bulk of the runtime may be silent long shots, but there are plenty of narrative-heavy parts that throw it out of the realm of slow cinema, in my opinion. Though, maybe I’ve got a purist mindset when it comes to slow cinema. I’ve seen some people label Kelly Reichardt’s films as slow cinema, and I understand where they’re coming from, but I think of films like 24 Frames or Jeanne Dielman, where there’s largely no narrative at all. Do you think Kelly Reichardt’s work qualifies? Are there other examples of films for filmmakers that you’d label as slow cinema?
Henry: If there’s a category somewhere close to slow cinema but not quite there then that’s where I’d put her films. Certainly no 24 Frames in terms of slowness as they all have narratives that are the primary focus of the films but they do have plenty of time to breathe. I think the line for me considering something slow cinema is if the primary focus is on the narrative or the observational takes, not the complete absence of narrative, which is why I would call Satantango slow as opposed to Reichardt’s films that are slower cinema but not the full way there. Tarr and Kiarostami both did plenty of slow cinema though as you brought up. Thinking through the slow cinema I’ve seen to answer your question, Akerman, Tarkovsky, and Bergman come to mind as filmmakers that worked with it in varying degrees and are all among my favorite filmmakers. Something about that kind of film that most of my family and friends can’t stand and make fun of me for watching but I love. Just entrancing stuff. I’ll take seven hours of nothing over most anything else. But at the same time, with most of those films it’s not the slow filmmaking but the narrative that sticks with me well after it’s done. The experience of watching it is what makes it so resounding and hypnotic but it’s hard to conjure up the feeling in my mind as compared to the meaning it reinforces. Given your intense delineation of what makes slow cinema, what, aside from 24 Frames which literally has no narrative and only 24 long shots in it, actually qualifies for slow cinema per your definition?
Kern: I would probably put The Death of Mr. Lazarescu in that category. I also really loved Gus Van Sant’s “Death Trilogy” (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days), though it’s been years since I’ve seen them, and from my memory, I’d say those would qualify, but I can’t say I’ve seen very much else that I would label as pure slow cinema (punishingly slow, really) like that, and honestly I’m not sure that much of it would appeal to me. I’m more responsive to slow-er cinema like you’re talking about, Kiarostami’s work, some of Carlos Reygadas’s films; tranquil rather than completely stagnant, where the atmosphere serves a sparse plot, rather than being entirely atmosphere alone. The thing you mentioned about your family hating slower movies does remind me of the time I took my mom to see A Gentle Creature in theaters, which I would say mostly qualifies as slow cinema (a man in the front was loudly snoring throughout), except that the last 20 minutes are so dense with plot and feature an incredibly abrupt and disturbing scene of violence. I had wanted to show her something in the realm of slow cinema and I think it ended up scarring both of us. A cautionary tale.
Henry: That’s the problem with taking a gamble on something you’ve never seen when you watch a movie with other people. Invariably it ends up being a huge disappointment or not at all what you expected and no one ever forgives you for it.
This seems like as good a place as any to wrap it up for the week and switch gears from slow cinema to the Fast and Furious franchise for the next iteration. Until then, if you haven’t seen Satantango yet and we’ve made you interested, you can watch it here or here and hopefully one day soon we’ll see you all at the movies!
In Conversation 24 frames a gentle creature abbas kiarostami andrei tarkovsky carlos reygadas chantal akerman elephant fast and furious gus van sant ingmar bergman jeanne dielman kelly reichardt last days satantango the death of mr lazarescu the turin horse werckmeister harmonies
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